Marathon Strategies
June 8, 2022

PR Week: Companies Must Prepare for the Age of Online Disinformation

By: Phil Singer, founder and CEO of Marathon Strategies

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Conspiracy theories and disinformation have been around since the beginning of recorded history, and probably much longer, with everyone from Roman emperors to today’s politicians both creating and buying into these falsehoods. But with the advent of the internet and its subcultures, we have entered a new era of disinformation where lies spread farther and faster, and the damage can have long-lasting reputational and financial consequences for companies caught off-guard. 

Today, disinformation campaigns have evolved far beyond the caricature of conspiracy theorists living in their parents’ basement and wreaking havoc online. These attacks have become organized, sophisticated and weaponized over the years as the groups pulling the strings fine-tune their methods, which include exploiting social media and propagating fake news stories. Indeed, media reports reveal that a lucrative “shadow industry” of ‘back-alley” firms has sprung up to offer highly specialized disinformation services. 

While these services can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, the return on investment is high as the bad actors behind these campaigns can use social media to inflict quick and far-reaching damage. Twitter, TikTok and other social media channels have become a fertile breeding ground for disseminating disinformation at a time when Americans are increasingly relying on these platforms for news. Compounding this problem is social media’s relative hesitancy to crack down on disinformation and how its censors struggle to keep up with the torrent of bad actors who flood online discussions with toxic content.

We’ve already witnessed the trauma that disinformation has caused to our country’s politics. At the same time, however, disinformation presents dire problems for companies and industries that are ill-prepared for an attack. Just ask e-commerce retailer Wayfair, which almost overnight became the subject of a human trafficking conspiracy theory involving missing children. The impetus behind this claim originated from a single Reddit post that quickly migrated to Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and TikTok. Four days after the initial post, there were a dozen new videos pushing the conspiracy theory with a combined 2 million views. 

The conspiracy grew in scale and scope, and soon Wayfair was in full-blown crisis mode, battling multiple fronts. While it vehemently denied the claims and removed many of the items targeted by the conspiracy theorists, that only fueled more suspicion. The episode is a harbinger for future, similar disinformation attacks and a clear example of just how quickly a conspiracy can take off.

It is a looming challenge for the corporate world that is dissected in a report my firm has released that examines the top industry targets of disinformation and the consequences of recent attacks on corporations. Our analysis measured the appearance of key disinformation-related terms in conjunction with S&P 500 companies and found more than 5.7 million online mentions over a one-year period. The industries most correlated with disinformation conversation during that time span were communication services, consumer discretionary, information technology and healthcare.  

Disinformation campaigns can cause more than just headaches for corporate leadership and communications teams. They can tank a stock price, instigate a public relations crisis and, if left unchecked, tarnish a company’s image forever. Once a company becomes a target, it is a race against the clock to correct the narrative, making it critical to have fundamental communications strategies in place.

Before a crisis even arises, companies should conduct a comprehensive audit that includes potential adversaries and the company’s vulnerabilities as it’s important to understand what threat could be used by bad actors. They should use consistent messaging, driven by one dedicated team, to ward off potential disinformation campaigns and mitigate any damage should one materialize as mixed messages can sow more chaos. When combating the fiction being disseminated, it is vital to only deal in facts from credible experts and verified sources to separate disinformation from the truth. As each disinformation campaign is unique, these communication strategies can be tailored accordingly with all or a few deployed. 

The 18th Century Irish essayist Jonathan Swift wrote that “Falsehood flies, and truth comes limping after it, so that when men come to be undeceived, it is too late; the jest is over, and the tale hath had its effect.”

Swift may have lived three centuries before the advent of online disinformation, but his words still ring true today. Businesses need to be prepared for a potential attack or risk being caught off-guard when there is little it can do to prevent the spread of disinformation.